February 20, 2017
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The Art of Malaysian Grilled Meat on a Stick

Whoever’s got the most sticks wins.

Whenever Angelina Branca and her younger brother, Anthony, would earn high marks in school, their parents would reward them with a trip out of Kuala Lumpur and into the kampongs surrounding the city, led by their senses to the saté man. “It’s almost like someone ringing the dinner bell—you can smell it from miles and miles away,” says Branca of this beloved class of street chef, whose presence always drew a ravenous crowd. “It’s like marketing.”

After patiently queuing up, the siblings—much to the chagrin of Mom and Dad, who were treating—would compete to see who could eat the most, clutching bouquets of scraped-clean skewers in their fists as battle trophies.

Now that she owns Saté Kampar, a little South Philadelphia shop that evangelizes the dish, Branca’s realized this custom was not unique to her. “Even when I meet Malaysians today,” she says, “they come in and say, ‘Wow, I wonder if I could still eat 50 sticks like I used to.’”

Just like the highly skilled hawkers of her childhood, saté never sits in one place for too long. Unassuming bamboo staves packed with fragrant bits of marinated meat, they exist in a state of kinetic flux, flipped, glazed, jiggled and generally doted on to a tune only certain people hear. Watch Branca hover over her scorching-hot grill, fueled by combustible coconut-shell charcoal cloaked in furry white ash, and it’s clear she’s one of those people.

Using both hands to gather the crimson-tipped sticks five at a time, Branca slides a clutch of Melaka-style pork belly over a hissing pylon of briquettes, allowing the leaping flames to nip at the sizzling fat for a moment before shifting them to a cooler corner. Another quintet of wood and meat gets the same treatment, and before long the drips send up a spiky flare that glints off every reflective surface of her restaurant’s open kitchen. Branca grabs a wicker fan and works it over the grill, calming and feeding the fire in short downward strokes. A smoke-filled blink or two later, it’s back to the hyperactive dance; Branca glides to and fro laterally, like an elite perimeter defender locking down the ball.

Plenty of cooking techniques rely on feel over empirical function, but for Branca, a Malaysian expat and corporate road warrior turned restaurateur, saté is about more than just cooking. It’s a no-utensils-needed lifeline to a land she left behind, a country that itself is losing touch with the scratch-made culinary traditions that colored her youth. By definition, Saté Kampar, the year-old restaurant she opened with her American-born husband, John, sells meat on a stick. (And last week it was named a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation, stunning some in the industry.) But in this instance, the street snack speaks to a purpose bigger than sustenance—it’s nostalgia, ritual, and preservation, in a format people on the opposite side of the planet can immediately, and literally, grasp.

Raised between Kuala Lumpur and Kampar, a more rural district a few hours north of the capital, Branca grew up in a food-obsessed family. Her mother and grandmother were handy in the kitchen. Her aunt ran a stand on Jalan Alor, a famous hawker’s row in KL. Her godmother, an author and home economics instructor, published cookbooks about Malaysian food and heritage.

From these women, a young Branca slowly picked up the techniques—stir-frying, grinding and blending spices, rendering flavor into oils, stewing meats—that would become the cornerstones of her cooking. This spectrum of skills reflects the multitudes that commingle on the Malay peninsula. Chinese, Indian, European, Arab, and indigenous influences inform this cuisine, with many of those arrivals funneling through the southwestern port of Melaka, a historic trading hub and gateway to an ancient international spice market.

“Every time [customers] taste something here, it reminds them of something else. It doesn’t matter which part of the world they’re from,” says Branca, who’s heard it all, from parties both expected (Thais and Filipinos love it) and not (a Jewish diner describing the otak-otak, a sort of mackerel soufflé, as a superior gefilte fish). “That’s the beauty of Malaysian cuisine.” To put it another way, the identity of Malaysian food is that there is no commanding identity—here, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, this innate diversity reflects a complex past that informs present-day coexistence.

Close as she was to it, cooking did not present itself as an immediate career path for Branca, who earned an accounting degree in Scotland ahead of a long career as a globetrotting financial consultant for business powers like IBM and Deloitte. It was the latter firm that led her to Pennsylvania; she met her husband there and decided to settle in the area.

“In the end, what inspired me to leave my corporate job and do this was 16 years living away,” says Branca, who arrived in the States in 2000. “Here in Philly, it’s as far away as it gets from Malaysia. You could fly west or you could fly east, and it makes no difference. That distance started to make my appreciation grow stronger and stronger.”

There are only a few Malaysian restaurants in Philly, but Saté Kampar, which Branca spent five years planning, was inspired less by a dearth of local options than the shifting scene back home.

Every time Branca returned to visit family, she noticed a rapidly changing food scene that she did not like. “The flavors that I missed in the States were dying in Malaysia,” she says, getting a little misty at the admission. Prepackaged, mass-produced versions of cherished recipes, like keropok lekor (fried fish cake), sambal, or the noodle soup laksa, were everywhere. The mom-and-pop counterparts she grew up enjoying were not. “I had to really, really seek out all those places, and even when I did find them, you’d see gray-haired men or women behind the stalls,” she adds. The dishes that are the hardest to make are often the first to vanish—so Branca decided to do something about it.

To sharpen the scope of the restaurant—you’ll notice there’s no Indo-Muslim roti canai, perhaps Malaysia’s most recognizable dish, on the menu—Branca looked to saté, the native food she thought would be instantly appealing to American eaters.

A few things separate Malaysian-style saté from its Ameri-Thai counterpart, a takeout staple typically made with chunks of dried-out chicken breast slicked with a sweet peanut sauce. Malaysians tend to fill up less of the skewer with meat, allowing for easier handling on the grill. The use of coconut charcoal provides intense heat with minimal flavor-numbing smoke.

The bigger difference comes in the form of marinades—there are as many as there are Malaysian towns, but Saté Kampar focuses on two. In the city of Kajang, known as “Saté Town,” it’s easy to find the quintessential Malay preparation—usually chicken, beef, or goat, flavored with a well-rounded mixture of toasted dry spices (coriander, cumin, fennel) and binding wet ingredients (ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, shallot) that penetrate and tenderize the meat. “There’s always salt, sugar, and acid—it has to hit all those different notes in one bite,” says Branca. Melaka-style saté, meanwhile, sees a piquant five-spice blend cut with turmeric and tamarind, a nod to Branca’s Chinese-Malay ancestry.

Regardless of style, proper Malaysian saté is, and should be, laborious. Cultivating real flavor is incongruous with shortcuts—one reason, Branca posits, that customs like these are fading. All the more reason to make it a party. “It’s so much work to do it for four,” says Branca. “You might as well do it for 10.”

The ritual eating of saté is as vital as its fastidious cooking. Slowly simmered to achieve a gravy-like consistency that’s thinner than you’d think, peanut sauces for dipping are a mandatory accompaniment, as are wedges of cool raw cucumber and chunked-up ketupat, rice boiled for hours inside hand-woven palm leaf purses. You eat these accoutrements the way you’d think you eat them—by stabbing them with a spent skewer that can double as a handheld spear.

Whether by dint of price, ubiquity, or both, street food has always been inclusive, but Malaysian saté also serves a loftier purpose. Most shops, Saté Kampar included, adapt to the religious proclivities of their clientele, offering completely separate prep areas and grills that allow halal and non-halal eaters to dine together with zero issues. (More than half of modern Malaysians are practicing Muslims.)

“We wanted to do that because that’s the way our country is,” says Branca, who says this small gesture embodies the very big concept of muhibbah, or true harmony across race and faith. “People of multiple cultures actually dine together, and the kitchen takes care of it. We always came together, and we want to keep it that way.”

 

Saté Kajang
Serves 10
The city of Kajang is known throughout the country as “Saté Town,” as its skewered meats are an inescapable street-food staple. The signature of this version of saté is not just the tasty bits of chicken, but the aromatic lure of warm spices caramelizing over charcoal. This marinade is sweet, so you’ll need to be watchful when grilling to make sure nothing burns. Note that this recipe feeds an army—which is a good thing, because who doesn’t want to throw a saté party. But you can scale down accordingly.

INGREDIENTS
5 pounds kosher or halal chicken (breast or thigh meat), cut into 1-inch cubes
5 pounds shallots, peeled and sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced (bottom 1/3 of stalks only, with 2-3 outer layers removed)
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
2-inch knob fresh galangal, peeled (optional)
2-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled (or 3 teaspoons powdered turmeric)
6 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
3 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
3 tablespoons whole fennel seeds
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup neutral oil
100 count 8-inch bamboo skewers
3 cucumbers, cut into Rangiri-style wedges

DIRECTIONS
1. In a blender, combine shallots, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, turmeric, and oil and blend into a thick paste.

2. In a dry pan over medium heat, lightly toast whole coriander, cumin, and fennel until fragrant. Remove spices and finely grind using a spice or coffee grinder.

3. In a large bowl, combine wet paste, toasted and ground dry spices, sugar, salt, and oil with cubed chicken and mix well. Cover and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight.

4. Soak bamboo skewers in cold water for about 15 minutes before introducing meat. Using your hands, add 3 or 4 pieces of chicken to each skewer, leaving about half the length of the skewer free for the grill. Remove the remaining marinade left at the bottom of the bowl, add it with 1 cup water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil; this mixture will be used for glazing.

To grill: Coconut-based charcoal produces the best saté results, as it burns hot without excessive smoke that will mask the delicate flavors of the marinade. If you don’t have access to coconut charcoal, use an outdoor gas grill or an indoor stovetop griddle for best results.

Over high heat, grill batches of saté for a total of 8 minutes, flipping every 2 minutes and being careful not to overcrowd the grill or pan. After 8 minutes, brush glaze onto both sides of each skewer, then grill for an additional 2 minutes on each side, until the glaze caramelizes and gives the meat a golden crust.

Remove from heat and serve immediately, accompanied by warm peanut sauce (see below) and cucumber wedges.

Kuah Kacang (Peanut Sauce)
Malaysian peanut sauce is close in consistency to a gravy. A layer of red oil will typically develop on top of the sauce during the cooking process, a result of a critical step in Malaysian cooking called naik minyak, or the tempering of spices in oil. This step extracts flavors from the cells of herbs and spices, giving the sauce a beautiful aroma and color.

INGREDIENTS
5 pounds shallots, peeled and sliced
1 ounce dried chiles
3 stalks lemongrass (bottom 1/3 of stalks only, with 2-3 outer layers removed)
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
2-inch knob fresh galangal, peeled (optional)
1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled (or 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered turmeric)
1 cup neutral oil
4 tablespoons whole coriander
2 tablespoons whole cumin
2 tablespoons whole fennel
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup tamarind juice*
2 cups roasted peanuts, ground
5 cups water

DIRECTIONS
*A note on tamarind juice: Today, it is easy to buy tamarind juice in a bottle or can, but it is still best to extract it from a block of tamarind paste, as it allows for better control of concentration. You can find this in most Asian supermarkets sold in 14-ounce blocks; I prefer to buy the seedless blocks, as you tend to get more pulp. To produce 1 cup of tamarind juice, you will need about ½ a block of paste. Break the paste into smaller pieces and cover with 1¼ cup warm water, letting it sit for 30 minutes. Using your hands, mash the softened paste into a slurry. Using a medium fine strainer, strain the slurry till you have about 1 cup of pure tamarind juice and all that is left is pulp and seed in the strainer. Discard the pulp. The juice can be stored in the fridge for about a week or two if properly covered.

1. In a blender, combine shallots, chiles, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and oil, then blend into a thick paste.

2. In a dry pan over medium heat, lightly toast whole coriander, cumin, and fennel until fragrant. Remove spices and finely grind using a spice or coffee grinder.

3. Combine wet and dry ingredients into a large pot — oil tends to splatter during the cooking process of this sauce, so a high-walled vessel will help prevent a big mess. Cook mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the oil begins separating from the solids, about 15 minutes. Take note of the fragrances you’re extracting — you should get the light aroma of shallot, ginger, and chile, while the spices will color the oil bright red. This oil, infused with the flavorful essence of both the wet and dry ingredients, is an important indicator of a properly made kuah kacang.

4. Add salt and sugar to the pot, slowly caramelizing to turn the contents of the pot a dark red hue.

5. Add tamarind juice, peanuts, and water to the pot. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 30 minutes. The sauce should reduce, thickening to a gravy-like consistency.

6. Let the sauce rest for 1 hour uncovered to allow the flavors to come together. The red oil will float to the top. Stir it back into the gravy when reheating it over medium heat before it is served.

Saté Melaka
Serves 10
Much like the approach and decor of Saté Kampar, this non-halal saté is a reflection of Malaysia’s Chinese/Hainanese population. Unlike the Kajang style, there are no wet elements in this marinade; rather, it relies on the warm harmony struck between traditional five-spice blend (star anise, cinnamon, white and black peppercorn, and clove) and turmeric.

INGREDIENTS
5 pounds lean pork belly, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons powdered turmeric
2 tablespoons powdered Chinese five-spice
2 teaspoons salt
100 count 8-inch bamboo skewers
3 cucumbers, cut into Rangiri-style wedges

DIRECTIONS
1. In a large bowl, combine pork belly, turmeric, Chinese five-spice, and salt and mix well. Cover and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight.

2. Soak bamboo skewers in cold water for about 15 minutes before introducing meat. Using your hands, add 3 to 4 pieces of pork to each skewer, leaving about half the length of the skewer free for the grill.

3. Over medium-high heat, grill batches of saté for 12 to 15 minutes, flipping every 2 minutes and being careful not to overcrowd the grill or pan. If you are grilling over charcoal, pay particular attention to the pork, because the fat will drip, causing flare-ups that can char the meat too quickly. If there is a flare-up, quickly remove the skewers and let the fire die down before returning the meat to the grill. Regular turning will prevent flares.

4. Remove from heat and serve immediately, accompanied by warm pineapple peanut sauce (see below) and cucumber wedges.

Kuah Kacang Melaka (Pineapple Peanut Sauce)
The deep, savory personality of Melaka-style saté finds its sweet-and-sour match in this variation on Malaysian peanut sauce. In the motherland, this is often prepared with belimbing, the tart starfruit common in Southeast Asian cooking; pineapple serves as a more accessible replacement in the States.

INGREDIENTS
5 pounds shallots, peeled and sliced
1 ounce dried chiles
3 stalks lemongrass (bottom 1/3 of stalks only, with 2-3 outer layers removed)
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
2-inch knob fresh galangal, peeled (optional)
1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled (or 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered turmeric)
½ cup neutral oil
½ cup sugar (adjust this measurement to increase or decrease overall spiciness)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup tamarind juice
2 cups fresh pineapple, puréed
1 cup roasted peanuts, ground
3 cups water

DIRECTIONS
1. In a blender, combine shallots, chiles, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and oil, then blend into a thick paste.

2. Combine paste and salt in a large pot—oil tends to splatter during the cooking process of this sauce, so a high-walled vessel will help prevent a big mess. Cook mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the oil begins separating from the solids, about 15 minutes. Take note of the fragrances you’re extracting—you should get the light aroma of shallot, ginger, and chili as the color of the oil turns bright red. This oil, infused with the flavorful essence of the spice paste, is an important indicator of a properly made kuah kacang.

3. Add sugar to the pot, slowly caramelizing to turn the contents of the pot a dark red hue.

4. Add tamarind juice, pineapple puree, peanuts, and water to the pot. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 30 minutes. The sauce should reduce, thickening to a gravy-like consistency.

5. Let the sauce rest for 1 hour uncovered to allow the flavors to come together. The red oil will float to the top. Stir it back into the gravy while reheating it over medium heat before it is served.

Drew Lazor

A Philadelphia-based food and drink writer, Drew Lazor has contributed to Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Lucky Peach, The Philadelphia Inquirer, PUNCH, Saveur, and Serious Eats.

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